My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Swann’s Way (In Search of Lost Time, Volume I ~ 1913) by Marcel Proust was originally rejected by multiple publishers and laughed off until Proust self-funded (i.e., self-published) his own book because he had a life-long vision for his literature. All his life Proust wanted to be a novelist and he let nothing stand in his way and he went on to achieve world fame and immortal success with In Search of Lost Time (previously translated as Remembrance of Things Past from the French title À la recherche du temps perdu).
In the “Introduction” Richard Howard explains of Proust and his un-named protagonist:
“What is narrated is not the Narrator’s life, but his desire to write. Time thwarts this desire, tends it toward a conventional chronology (which must be continually subverted, for what is merely successive is surely lost: only the circle can be retrouvé, a word that means not only regained but rediscovered, recognized, repossessed)—and how many challenges, discouragements, and rivalries must be endured before the desire to write achieves an ultimate triumph” (Vol. I, p xiv).
Proust, himself, would agree with this “other self” who narrates his epic:
“A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, in society, in our vices. If we mean to try to understand this self it is only in our inmost depths, by endeavoring to reconstruct it there, that the quest can be achieved” (Vol. II, p vi).
The Great French Novel (a single novel originally published as separate books), In Search of Lost Time (Volumes I-VI re-published with an updated translation by The Modern Library in 1992) is a major work (and piece of art) in World Literature and without question one of the longest books (excluding Addenda, Notes, Synopsis, etc.) at a total page count of 4,347 pages:
Volume I ~ Swann’s Way (1913) = 606 pages
Volume II ~ Within a Budding Grove (1919) = 730 pages
Volume III ~ The Guermantes Way, Books I & II (1920 & 1921) = 819 pages
Volume IV ~ Sodom and Gomorrah, Books I & II (1921 & 1922) = 724 pages
Volume V* ~ The Captive (1923) & The Fugitive (1925) = 936 pages
Volume VI* ~ Time Regained (1927) = 532 pages
*Note* ~ Proust died on November 22, 1922 before the last two volumes (or the last three books) were originally published
Major Characters in Swann’s Way
Narrator ~ officially un-named but interpreted as the author Marcel Proust
Narrator’s Mother & Father (as Mamma & Papa)
Charles Swann, aristocrat and converted Jew (p 476) & also referred to as a “supernatural apparition” (pgs 588, 592) taking on myth-like status to the Narrator
Odette de Crécy, love interest of Charles Swann (p 26, 446)
Gilberte Swann, Charles Swann’s daughter and love interest of the Narrator as a small boy (p 199)
Plot Outline in Swann’s Way
Part One: Combray (pgs 1-264)
Section I (pgs 1-64) involves history, backstory, and setting: The Narrator in bed waiting for Mamma to kiss him goodnight as the family has dinner with Charles Swann
Section II (pgs 65-264)
- In the morning after the dinner with Charles Swann…
- Auntie Léonie (wife of Uncle Octave) with servant Françoise (pgs 66, 73)
- On the Steeple & the Church in Combray (pgs 80, 87, 90-91)
- Explanation of the “Two Ways” (or two pathways leading away from the Narrator’s home in Combray): Méséglise Way (also known as Swann’s Way) & Guermantes Way (pgs 143, 145, 178, 188, 233-235, 241-243, 251, 258)
- On Two Loves: Gilberte Swann (pgs 199-200) & Mme de Guermantes (pgs 247-251) ~ also see “the girl of my dream” (p 3) which is also indirectly referenced on pages 500, 593, and 598.
Part Two: Swann in Love (pgs 265-544)
- Intro to love affair between Charles Swann and Odette (p 262) before the birth of the Narrator
- Swann moved by piano music at the Verdurin’s part with Odette in Paris (p 300)
- An afternoon with Odette at “her little house in the Rue La Pérouse, behind the Arc de Triomphe” (pgs 309, 313)
- Swann imagines Odette as Sandro Botticelli’s Zipporah (Jethro’s daughter in the 1482 fresco “The Trials and Callings of Moses,” also known in this book as: “Life of Moses” or “The Youth of Moses”); comparisons to art and Swann’s infatuation grows for Odette (p 337)
- Swann searches for Odette among the Paris streets at night (p 326)
- Swann falls in love with Odette (p 338)
- Swann’s Jealousy (p 390)
- Swann’s still jealous (p 431)
- Swann attends a ball at Mme de Saint-Euverte’s and sends his friend Baron de Charlus to keep Odette company at her house (p 458)
- Vinteuil’s sonata reminds Swann of Odette (pgs 490-500)
- Swann receives an anonymous letter telling him of Odette’s perfidy (p 506)
- Odette admits to Swann that she has slept with women “two or three times” (p 516)
- Odette’s confession to Swann (p 527)
- Thoughts and discussion on Machard’s 1896 portrait (p 533)
- Swann no longer loves Odette & Swann’s strange dream (p 538)
Part Three: Place-Names – The Name (pgs 545-606)
- Narrator in Balbec; thoughts concerning the character of places and a return to setting (p 551)
- Narrator meets Gilberte in Paris and two children play (p 560)
- Swann becomes somewhat mythic in the eyes of the young Narrator; Swann’s “supernatural form” and “supernatural apparition” (pgs 588, 592)
- Mme Swann elevated to the likes of a Queen; Mme Swann is confirmed to be Odette (pgs 595-596, 603)
Connections to The Guermantes Way in Swann’s Way
In Swann’s Way (Volume I) multiple connections exist to The Guermantes Way (Volume III) and feel free to explore these connections on the following pages: 82, 143-145, 178, 188, 233-235, 241-243, 251, and page 258.
Connections to Murakami’s 1Q84 in Swann’s Way
In Swann’s Way (Volume I) multiple connections exist to Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and feel free to explore these connections on the following pages: 202 (“chrysalis”), 206 (“moon”), 338 (“moon”), 414 (“chrysalis”), 466 (“Liszt”), and page 471 (“Chopin”).
The images, references, and themes of the moon, the chrysalis, and classical music (mainly Liszt) appear frequently throughout 1Q84.
Thoughts on Themes Found in Swann’s Way
From the opening page Proust takes the reader on a voyage of perception caught in the maelstrom of Space & Time until the reader must question the “real world” from the “imagined.”
Perception quickly takes precedence in Swann’s Way when the Narrator, a young Proust, considers how one’s personality is formed and what constitutes one’s personality in the outside, perceivable world. The reader will notice how much of the “external world” mixes and conflicts and merges and transmogrifies the Narrator’s “internal world,” and what forms is a narrative telling the reader of memories found in the “exaltation of mind” (pgs 259-261).
When Charles Swann joins the young Narrator for dinner one night in the opening scenes of the novel, social personality is defined and considered to be a part of the external experienced reality and the internal experience of the imagined. Described thus:
“Our social personality is a creation of the thoughts of other people… We pack the physical outline of the person we see with all the notions we have already formed about him, and in the total picture of him which we compose in our minds those notions have certainly the principal place… that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is these notions which we recognise and to which we listen” (pgs 23-24).
“Social personality” will help establish the foundation for Charles Swann’s otherworldly infatuation with Odette, who constantly is affirmed by society to be an unfit woman for the aristocrat and for his aristocracy; Odette, however, is also deeply desired with the sincerest passions by Swann. The dichotomy emerges: Does it matter to Charles Swann what the external world crudely thinks of Odette so long as his own internal thoughts for her remain pure and honorable?
Throughout the novel, the young Narrator explores these “pathways of perception” and how (also) the imagined can influence the physical world outside the mind. As a young boy on his daily walks in the countryside around Combray the young Narrator seeks (what he calls) “the girl of my dream” (p 3):
“I would stare interminably at the trunk of a distant tree, from behind which she would emerge and come to me; I scanned the horizon, which remained as deserted as before; night was falling; it was without hope now that I concentrated my attention, as though to draw up from it the creatures which it must conceal, upon that sterile soil, that stale, exhausted earth…
“When, unable to resign myself to returning home without having held in my arms the woman I so greatly desired, I was yet obliged to retrace my steps towards Combray, and to admit to myself that the chance of her appearing in my path grew smaller every moment. And if she had appeared, would I have dared to speak to her?
“They seemed to me now no more than the purely subjective, impotent, illusory creations of my temperament. They no longer had any connection with nature, with the world of real things, which from then onwards lost all its charm and significance, and meant no more to my life than a purely conventional framework, what the railway carriage on the bench of which a traveler is reading to pass the time is to the fictional events of his novel” (pgs 223-224).
After running into his “dream girl” named Gilberte, who is Charles Swann’s daughter, the young Narrator in church for a “marriage ceremony” (pg 249) finally sees Mme de Guermantes, a woman he has long imagined and dreamed about meeting one day:
“I succeeded only in making the idea pass between me and the image, as though they were two discs moving in separate planes with a space between. But this Mme de Guermantes of whom I had so often dreamed, now that I could see that she had a real existence independent of myself, acquired an even greater power over my imagination, which, paralysed for a moment by contact with reality so different from what it had expected, began to react and to say to me: ‘Great and glorious before the days of Charlemagne, the Guermantes had the right of life and death over their vassals; the Duchesse de Guermantes descends from Geneviève de Brabant. She does not know, nor would she consent to know, any of the people who are here today” (pgs 247-248).
Proust as the young Narrator touches on an often overlooked point in society: How much time do people actually spend inside their heads constructing their own external realities primarily based on their own subjective and biased internal thoughts?
The young Narrator, already in love with the young Mlle Gilberte Swann (p 200), falls in love with the much older Mme de Guermantes:
“I fancied that I had found favor in her eyes, that she would continue to think of me after she had left the church, and would perhaps feel sad that evening, at Guermantes, because of me. And at once I fell in love with her, for if it is sometimes enough to make us love a woman that she should look on us with contempt, as I supposed Mlle Swann to have done, and that she can never be ours, sometimes, too, it is enough that she should look on us kindly, as Mme de Guermantes was doing, and that we should think of her as almost ours already…
“How often, after that day, in the course of my walks along the Guermantes way, and with what an intensified melancholy, did I reflect on my lack of qualification for a literary career, and abandon all hope of ever becoming a famous author…
“With a mass of disparate images… beneath which the reality I once sensed, but never had the will-power to discover and bring to light, has long since perished” (pgs 250-253).
The young Narrator establishes the foundation of how internal thoughts can create or destroy external realities (these external realities may or may not be true), and as we read of Charles Swann’s love affair with Odette the reader can grasp how Swann can ignore the external realities before him (in regards to Odette’s unfaithfulness and sexual history) and give attention and importance to his internal thoughts (in regards to Swann’s intense, often blinding love for Odette), much the same way the young Narrator imagines a reality where Mme de Guermantes will return home after the wedding and feel sad for the young boy and how the young Narrator loves her even though, in the external reality outside his own thoughts, Mme de Guermantes does not reflect those feelings nor is it likely she has even thought of our young Narrator.
Here, Charles Swann reflects on his own “perceptions” and “truths” (external and internal) concerning his love-interest Odette:
“But to suppose that she went to procuresses, that she indulged in orgies with other women, that she led the crapulous existence of the most abject, the most contemptible of mortals—what an insane aberration, for the realisation of which, thank heaven, the remembered chrysanthemums, the daily cups of tea, the virtuous indignation left neither time nor place…
“He loved sincerity, but only as he might love a pimp who could keep him touch with the daily life of his mistress. Thus his love of sincerity, not being disinterested, had not improved his character. The truth which he cherished was the truth which Odette would tell him…
“What is really terrible is what one can’t imagine” (pgs 511, 519).
Through Charles Swann’s internal turmoil over certain “truths” concerning his odd love affair with Odette, the young Narrator extrapolates how people can modify external (often distorted) conditions through their own internal (often imagined) perceptions which are inevitably thrust onto society’s physical reality (i.e., the “real-imagined” world outside one’s “perceived-imagined” self).
Here, the young Narrator explains the importance of the title Swann’s Way:
“When I try to reckon up all that I owe to the Méséglise way [also known as Swann’s way], all the humble discoveries of which it was either the fortuitous setting or the direct inspiration and cause, I am reminded that it was in that same autumn, on one of those walks, near the bushy slope which overlooks Montjouvain, that I was struck for the first time by this discordance between our impressions and their habitual expression…
“I had a desire for a peasant-girl from Méséglise or Roussainville, for a fisher-girl from Balbec, just as I had a desire for Balbec and Méséglise. The pleasure they might give me would have seemed less genuine, I should no longer have believed in it, if I had modified the conditions as I pleased. To meet a fisher-girl from Balbec or a peasant-girl from Méséglise in Paris would have been like receiving the present of a shell which I had never found among the woods, would have stripped from the pleasure she might give me all those other pleasures amidst which my imagination had enwrapped her. But to wander this among the woods of Roussainville without a peasant-girl to embrace was to see those woods and yet know nothing of their secret treasure, their deep-hidden beauty…
“Since I was still, and must for long remain, in that period of life when one has not yet separated the fact of this sensual pleasure from the various women in whose company one has tasted it, when one has not yet reduced it to a general idea which makes one regard them thenceforward as the interchangeable instruments of a pleasure that is always the same. Indeed, that pleasure does not even exist, isolated, distinct, formulated in the consciousness, as the ultimate aim for which one seeks a woman’s company, or as the cause of the preliminary perturbation that one feels. Scarcely does one think of it as a pleasure in store for one; rather does one call it her charm; for one does not think of oneself, but only of escaping from oneself” (pgs 218-222).
If the themes of “Subjective Reality vs Objective Reality” and the “Pathways of Perception” (including Time, Space, and External Reality vs the Imagined Reality) further interest you, seek more examples on the following pages: 198, 259-261, 448, 546, 554-558, 569-573, 577, and 605-606.
Proust could have easily called his great novel In Search of Lost Youth because memory (and the survival of what has become lost over the vast distances of Time and Space) take immediate precedence in Swann’s Way. Proust, through his young Narrator, does not shy away from the magic of one’s youth that holds us steady and resolute in one’s old age.
“They recalled to me the happy days of my unquestioning youth, when I would hasten eagerly to the spots where masterpieces of female elegance would be incarnate for a few moments beneath the unconscious, accommodating boughs…
“Mme Swann walked like a queen… They were just women, in whose elegance I had no faith, and whose clothes seemed to me unimportant. But when a belief vanishes, there survives it—more and more vigorously so as to cloak the absence of power, now lost to us, of imparting reality to new things—a fetishistic attachment to the old things which it did once animate, as if it was in them and not in ourselves that the divine spark resided, and as if our present incredulity had a contingent cause—the death of the gods…
“To what purpose shall I walk among these trees if there is nothing left now of the assembly that used to gather beneath this delicate tracery of reddening leaves, if vulgarity and folly have supplanted the exquisite thing that their branches once framed…
“Because of the solidarity that binds together the different parts of a general impression that our memory keeps in a balanced whole of which we are not permitted to subtract or to decline any fraction. I should have liked to be able to pass the rest of the day with one of those women…
“I wanted to find then again as I remembered them… The elements of that longing which had itself become as inaccessible as the pleasure that it had once vainly pursued… My imagination had individualised them and had provided each of them with a legend” (pgs 602-605).
Now the reader has to ask: How much of the novel Swann’s Way is real? Imagined? Legend?
Now on to Proust’s Volume II, Within a Budding Grove (1919), winner of the Goncourt Prize.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 320,000+ followers